GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Building (a) Cultural Capital: Transforming Citizen and Culture in Abu Dhabi
Paper Proposal Text :
My research explores the ways in which national museums produce citizens, history, and a place-based identity through the prism of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE). I am interested in the ways that nationals and non-nationals experience and participate in the arts, particularly around the Saadiyat project which includes an Emirati national and regional natural history museum, the Zayed National Museum, as well as a Guggenheim and a Louvre museum. This project, announced in 2007, catalyzed rapid expansion in the Gulf art scene, triggering the opening of private galleries and inauguration of several art fairs. While one skeptic, sitting next to me at an arts workshop, asked, “Are these things for the expats?,” the cultural workers I spoke with articulated Emirati acceptance and “buy-in” of the Saadiyat museums as a primary, if not the, critical factor in their success and long-term viability. My fieldwork, conducted with expatriate and native cultural workers involved in the Saadiyat project and in other aspects of the Abu Dhabi arts and cultural scene, explores the role of a national museum in validating particular histories and invalidating others (in this case, working against negative tropes of the Gulf as without history or culture); in addition, my interlocutors carefully situated the various cultural scenes across the UAE and the Gulf in relation to Saadiyat and Abu Dhabi, revealing underlying discourses of place-making and identity construction.
One predominant media narrative around Saadiyat is that the UAE, and the Arab Gulf in general, is a “tabula rasa” or “has no history.” In interviews, some cultural workers attached to the Saadiyat project expressed similar views, noting that the Saadiyat’s museums have an important vision to “build the citizens of the future” and to “change a mentality.” Despite not being Emirati themselves, senior level cultural workers frame their roles as molding future Emiratis and articulating, in many ways, what it means to be Emirati. Saadiyat’s creators, while at times reinforcing the trope of “tabula rasa,” also work against this construction of the Gulf as without history. Staff at the Zayed National Museum, which is an explicitly national museum specifically devoted to the history and ecology of the UAE, directly confront with these ideas by articulating a lengthy history for the area and promulgating a distinctly Emirati identity against prevailing ideas of tabula rasa. Establishing a lengthy history and delineating high culture in a museum contribute to the formation of an Emirati nation-state and identity.
Saadiyat’s museums, housed in the capital city of the UAE, also hold symbolic importance in their location. Here, ideas about what modern, civilized cities have to offer tourists and residents inform many ideas of what Abu Dhabi should build or develop. In addition, when probed about the variety of cultural development projects occurring simultaneously across the Gulf, Abu Dhabi-based cultural workers invoke a discourse of ‘compatible not competitive,’ describing different cities in the UAE as offering distinct cultural scenes (‘local,’ ‘commercial,’ ‘government’) that did not directly compete with one another. What is at stake in ensuring the Emirati arts scene, both that between Emirati cities and between the UAE and the Gulf region, are perceived as harmonious rather than contentious?
The Saadiyat project offers unique insight, then, as a rare space where non-nationals undertake projects of national representation, where the majority population is not a national population. Non-nationals are articulating through these museums what Emirati culture looks like, and attempting to do so in a way Emiratis “buy” and support such that the museums are sustainable long-term. In addition, this version of Emirati identity, and Abu Dhabi’s perceived unique offering within the UAE context, becomes paramount as these projects jostle with other Gulf cultural projects such as those emerging in Doha, Qatar.